Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Translation & Commentary: Petition Procedures in China Receive Official Treatment

China’s petitioning system is once again in the spotlight, both in the country and abroad. The modern incarnation of China’s centuries-old tradition of providing individuals with channels to voice complaints and seek redress for injustice—formally known as the “letters and visits” (信访) system—is officially viewed as an important element in promoting a “harmonious society” and combating official corruption and other malfeasance. At the same time it is widely seen as overburdened and ineffective, and some charge that it is contributing to the very social instability it is intended to address.

One area of focus lately has been the disturbing treatment of some petitioners at the hands of “interceptors,” agents hired by local officials to retrieve individuals who have traveled to Beijing in hopes of getting their grievances heard by the central government. Local officials, concerned that too many (or overly troublesome) petitioners from their home jurisdictions will reflect poorly on their job performance and chances for career advancement, have sanctioned the incarceration of such individuals in "black jails"—unauthorized, unregulated detention centers where petitioners are kept while being pressured to drop their cases and return home.

Significantly, concern over “black jails” and the treatment of petitioners has recently been expressed (English story links to original Chinese text) in Outlook Weekly (瞭望), a major state-sponsored magazine devoted to news and opinion. This sort of public acknowledgement of such a serious rights infringement is rare in China, and marks a clear departure from previous public denials that “black jails” even existed.

Indeed, there now appears to be spreading recognition that China’s petitioning system is in need of substantial reform if it is to play a role that is socially beneficial, rather than harmful. Some of these reform efforts were discussed recently in a front-page item (Chinese only, entitled “信访工作应在法律框架下运作,” published here and translated by Dui Hua below) from Legal Daily, a newspaper published in Beijing by the Ministry of Justice. In the piece, the author looks at a pair of developments in the southern city of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.

On one hand, Shenzhen is attempting to facilitate petitioners’ activities by grouping the letters-and-visits offices of various city agencies under a single roof. On the other hand, Shenzhen also recently warned of possible serious punishments for “abnormal” petitioning behaviors—an announcement that elicited strong criticism from some online commentators and rights advocates.

The author’s call for a clearer legal framework to govern petitioning is not surprising, given the nature of the publication in which it appeared. However, his warning that better “hardware” (government infrastructure) should be accompanied by improvements in “software” (or petitioning procedures) should also serve as a reminder that a “legal framework” is only as good as its implementation and enforcement. If maintaining social stability and harmony is given priority over safeguarding individual rights—that is, if petitioners are viewed as “unruly people” and potential sources of instability—authorities may use the law to punish, rather than protect.

Letters and Visits Work Should Operate Under a Legal Framework
You Chunliang
Legal Daily, December 1, 2009

Recently, [letters and visits work] for Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, and each of its urban districts began operating out of a single letters and visits hall. This is the first time that the letters and visits personnel from 16 functional departments have been gathered to work from one location. [These departments] cover land resources and planning; science, technology, industry, and trade information; residential habitat; transportation; health and family planning; education; public security; supervision; civil affairs; justice; human resources and social security; culture, sports, and tourism; state-owned assets; housing construction; market regulation; and urban management.

Although this letters and visits hall is still in a trial phase, a spokesperson from the city’s letters and visits office indicated that the launch of the newly formed hall combining the city and district levels will help to break the traditional work mode of scattered resources and lack of coordination. Integrating resources will help to raise the petition resolution rate and the quality of case handling.

However, with the establishment of the Shenzhen Letters and Visits Hall, one cannot help but recall the recent attention paid to 14 types of “abnormal petitioning” activities. The Shenzhen Intermediate Peoples Court, Procuratorate, Public Security Bureau, and Justice Bureau recently issued a “Notice Regarding the Lawful Handling of Abnormal Petitioning Activity,” [which identified] 14 types of “abnormal petitioning,” such as wearing petition garments [i.e., clothing upon which the petitioner’s complaints have been written], engaging in sit-in protests, self-mutilation, suicide, causing unreasonable disturbances, blocking vehicles, or pestering employees of government organs, and [outlined] serious punishments such as administrative detention, pursuing criminal responsibility, or re-education through labor [for engaging in such behavior].

Release of the announcement led immediately to popular debate. Some took it as an effort by public authorities to suppress petitioners and something that would have a detrimental effect on the timely resolution of social grievances. Others viewed it as an effective, legal measure to stem unlawful petitioning behavior, one that would promote social harmony and stability.
In fact, the announcement released does not restrict the rights of Shenzhen residents to engage in normal petitioning, but rather encourages residents to exercise those rights properly. The announcement particularly addresses the issue of “how residents should properly exercise their petitioning rights,” pointing out that petitioners who choose to submit petitions in person should do so at the relevant government agency or locations specified for receiving petitions.

Construction of the Shenzhen Letters and Visits Hall shows us that the Shenzhen government is making progress in carrying out petitioning work. But “software” needs to keep up with this infrastructural “hardware”—for example, regulating the time needed to resolve a petition, standardizing the rights and obligations of personnel receiving petitions, and improving the quality of personnel receiving petitions. In practice, some locations view petitioning as “making trouble” and petitioners as “elements of instability.” They buy off petitioners, try to win over or deceive them, or even attack or harm them, making the situation even worse. The key to resolving the issue is to face the problems that exist with the petitioning process, improve work procedures, eliminate the popular concern that “nothing gets resolved without making a fuss,” and effectively protect people’s [right to make] reasonable and legitimate demands.

Work involving petitioning is not something that can be glossed over; it should operate under a legal framework and must not be placed above the law. This is the bottom line to which personnel and concerned functional departments [that handle] petitioning should adhere, and it is the most fundamental legal rule that petitioners should obey.